Spotlight: Scientist

Keith Schneider

Keith Schneider - Keith Schneider, Ph.D.

Keith Schneider, Ph.D.

Associate Professor

University of Florida

B.S., Biology Education, University of Florida
M.S., Public Health, University of South Florida
Ph.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Florida

Accepted into the graduate program of Biology at the University of South Florida, Dr. Keith Schneider realized he was inspired by the applied aspect of microbiology as opposed to the basic. This led him to work as a consultant designing water treatments systems. After working as a senior VP of microbiology for ABC Research he returned to academia. With his current appointment in the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at the University of Florida (UFL), Schneider credits his good fortune in researching tomatoes to inquiries from the produce industry as well as his enthusiasm to innovate the field of food safety. CPS staffer Connie Arana spoke with Dr. Schneider about the research he has completed for the Center for Produce Safety.

What is the defining moment that made you decide to research tomatoes?
The University of Florida is a land-grant institution, so its mission is outreach and giving back to the community. My appointment at UFL is 75% extension work, 15% research, and 10% teaching. On the research side, early on we received a food safety grant to work with produce. The fact that I am housed in the Aquatic Food Processing Laboratory here on campus and that I ended up working in produce should show you what happened. That initial grant led to several other grants working in the area produce safety.  I started doing more outreach work with the farmers and with the produce industry, specifically with tomatoes. In 2002 Dr. Doug Archer had a collaborative grant with UC Davis, Texas A &M and UFL working in the area of produce safety and Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). More and more of my research was geared towards microbial food safety.  We have regular requests to lecture in counties around the state. We do an extensive number of workshops targeted strictly for produce.

Had you heard of CPS before your response to the RFP?
Martha Roberts was instrumental in letting researchers at UFL know about CPS. Food safety researchers are a close-knit family and when something happens at UC Davis we hear about it at UFL through the deans and our colleagues. With the work that Martha Roberts does with CPS, we knew about its creation and where it was going from the start.

Can you tell me about your project, “Evaluation and optimization of postharvest intervention strategies for the reduction of bacterial contamination on tomatoes?”
When the RFP was released we had some ideas we wanted to work on. We partnered with Yaguang (Sunny) Luo, USDA-ARS, and we wanted to look at some of the basics. A lot of work has been done on the dump tank, and Sunny wanted to look more closely at the anecdotal aspects of organic loads and predictive modeling. We wanted to look at a move away from the dump tank especially after the spinach outbreak a couple of years ago and the possibility that the flumes in the packinghouses may be exacerbating the problem. Sunny’s research looked at the parameters in the dump tank. My research looked at alternatives to the dump tank. We came up with a technology that has been used in the citrus industry and we wanted to see how well it would apply to tomatoes.

What do you think the industry will gain from your project?
Ultimately, we are taking a small snapshot of what is going on. Hopefully we are showing that there is an alternative method that can achieve an adequate level of safety and maybe an alternative way of processing.  The goal is to reduce water use, chemical use, waste water, and illness. By using the brush roll system and not recycling the water, you use a lower chemistry level and less water. The cost of water is staggering so reducing consumption is a benefit to the processor, but the first thing we have to do is proof-of-principle to see if we can get the bacterial reductions that would satisfy the regulators. I think we have shown that. The next step is to see if we can make this practical. The next round of studies would be to examine natural occurring microflora and its effect on quality and natural shelf life.

You presented your CPS project at the 2011 Produce Research Symposium in June; what was that like?
It is like presenting at a class lecture, but it is interesting in that it is a group focused on produce safety. It is always nice to get like-minded individuals in the same room. We may not agree, but at least they understand what you are doing, and have expertise in that area.  It was an opportunity to speak at a venue where you can target a specific area with colleagues working in that same area.

Where do you see tomato research going in the next five years?
Right now, we have active programs in breeding, improving flavor quality and nutritional value at the University of Florida. As far as food safety goes I am most concerned with developing methods that are efficacious and economically viable. We are well aware of the financial burden farmers are going through right now. We try to do research that will have some use in the future. Ultimately, I see my research addressing the more practical kinds of things, giving farmers options and alternatives that are cheaper and safer and conserving the limited resources we have.

Aside from working in the laboratory, how do you spend your time?
I teach two classes in the fall and I have other classes I co-teach. I write copious amounts of FAQ sheets and that is the majority of my time. I host several workshops every year. I give outside lectures, probably around 10-30 every year. We do a lot of outreach activities. We try to give back as much as we can. I have four graduate students and three undergraduate students now, along with one postdoc, so I am managing a fairly active lab for my 15% appointment. We do a lot of other things in addition to tomato research. We have researchers working on some basic science: the genetics of Salmonella interaction with tomatoes. At home, I spend time with my family - lots of time in the kitchen, watching old movies, and waiting for a night with no clouds so I can take my telescope out.

Please describe one or more of your career highlights.
I think getting a job at UFL is a career highlight, along with receiving tenure. Awards are nice, but I am most proud of my students. The graduate students who have come through my lab are gainfully employed and doing well in the field. To be honest with you, this is what I take the most pride in.